Mediterranean Quarterly 17.3 (2006) 65-85
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Humanity's Ecological Footprint
Evaggelos G. Vallianatos
Life thrives primarily on one-quarter of the earth, about 11.4 billion hectares of land and water. The oceans take up 2.0 billion hectares of that fertile quarter. The remaining 9.4 billion hectares of land is divided into 1.5 billion hectares for raising food; 3.5 billion hectares for grazing domesticated animals; 3.8 billion hectares for forests; 0.3 billion hectares for lakes, rivers, and wetlands; and 0.3 billion hectares for cities. Life barely exists in the other three-quarters of the earth—deserts, ice regions, and deep oceans.
Since the eighteenth century, and especially during the past fifty years, humans have been having deleterious effects on the entire planet. The footprint of man on the earth is of two kinds: ecological, the consequences of human actions on the natural world, and cultural, the abandonment and often willful neglect and destruction of ancient agrarian traditions and knowledge, which are the umbilical cord of humans with the earth.
Starting in the mid-nineteenth century with the Industrial Revolution and armed with powerful technologies, Europeans and North Americas have been treating the natural world as if it was a lifeless mass of dirt. They spread to the tropics like a cataclysm, and they took the best land of the Africans, Asians, and South Americans and sowed it in cash crops. They killed and decimated wildlife for sport, plundering the valleys, forests, and rivers. [End Page 65]
In the Americas, the white masters of the continent nearly wiped out the indigenous population. David E. Stannard, professor of history at the University of Hawaii, says that the coming of Columbus to America triggered a bloodbath against Native Americans. In time, the Europeans' aggression against the indigenous people took the form of a "ghastly event," a "mammoth cataclysm," which evolved into the largest global genocide, taking the lives of about 100 million people. Disease played a role in the destruction of Native Americans, but only because it operated in the killing policies of the Europeans. Stannard documents that "firestorms of microbial pestilence and purposeful genocide" laid waste the American natives.1
One of the reasons Native Americans paid such a price at the hands of the white invaders was their worship of nature. They could no more sell land than the sky. The Europeans, in both Europe and the New World, still don't think much of nature. The blows against nature keep coming at the dawn of the twenty-first century under the guise of mining, logging, and fishing; the damming of rivers; and the construction of electricity factories, nuclear power plants, and nuclear weapons. There are also chemical production, fertilizer and munitions factories, wars, development projects, genetic engineering and genetically modified food, intensive farming, and spraying of toxins on the face of the world to blame. The result of such violence is the starving, crippling, killing, and extinction of countless species of plants (including flowers and the wild ancestors of crop plants), trees, birds, insects, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and other wildlife.
In 1986, Hugh Iltis, botanist at the University of Wisconsin, blamed ambitious cattle ranchers, land-hungry squatters, greedy corporations, and "the world's multilateral development banks" for this new barbarism. He noted that these developers
are recklessly destructive of nature and in an orgy of environmental brutality, clear cut the forests, burn the trees, and plow up the land to grow more food or graze more cattle, even before any scientist has had a chance to find out what lives there. In the name of growth, progress, and development, and with a colossal self-confidence, we humans are now messing up [End Page 66] even the last wild lands and damming the last wild rivers, oblivious of the irreplaceable biological treasures that are being destroyed.2
In 1997, Iltis saw biological genocide in the destruction of the tropics. He cited the biodiversity of the land in the Peruvian tropical forest, where in 2.47 acres of land there are forty-one thousand species of...